Sydney Roosters Season Review
"We had the players, we had everything there, they were ready to go. We just couldn't get it right. That's down to us... we got it right in patches and again tonight we couldn't get it into an 80-minute package to get what we wanted out of the season."
And just like that Roosters coach Trent Robinson sums up the defending premiers' 2014 campaign.
The Chooks were so heavily favoured to become the first team since Brisbane in 97-98 to claim back-to-back titles for plenty of reasons. They had the cavalry, with hooker Jake Friend the only member of the reigning champs' starting side without representative credentials. And he's been earmarked as the long term successor to Cam Smith's Queensland and Australian No.9 jumpers.
And everything was indeed there as the Chooks worked their way into overwhelming premiership favouritism on the eve of the finals. Mitch Pearce had found a new level. Offsider James Maloney was back to his sniping best. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa led a pack blessed with equal servings of fire, brimstone, skill and stamina.
And not even the most one-eyed, stone-hearted supporter of arch-rivals South Sydney would have begrudged retiring club legend Anthony Minichiello a second premiership ring as a parting gift after 15 years of loyal service to the game.
But when they were found out and then overwhelmed by said arch-rivals 40 minutes away from consecutive starts on the first weekend of October – having enjoyed a 12-0 lead after just eight minutes of the qualifying final – Robinson, as he often is, was on the money.
The Tricolours did get it right in patches. Not just against the Rabbitohs, but for the majority of the year. You don't double up on minor premierships by doing a whole lot wrong.
"There were so many things that went into this year and we just couldn't top it off." Again, full points on both counts to the second-year coach. There was always something cooking down Bondi way, plenty good, but also plenty that had the potential to unsettle.
Pearce and Maloney being snubbed for Origin duty due to the former's costly night on the tiles and an arrest outside a Kings Cross night club. Injuries to the five-star quintet of Boyd Cordner, Michael Jennings, Daniel Tupou, Sonny Bill Williams and Jake Friend.
And then as wins were strung together, came the hype. At first a surge, and by the first week of the semis a tsunami – the premiers were everyone's tip to go all the way and be the last 17 standing. Which they promptly followed up with two of their worst halves of football of the year in a one-point loss to Penrith and then a win by the same margin over the Cowboys.
When they completed their sets at just 53 per cent in the first stanza against the Panthers, and then conceded 30 points in 21 minutes to North Queensland, it didn't take a degree in rocket surgery to work out the Chooks were just slightly off the boil.
And as usual Robbo put it best. "We just couldn't get it into an 80-minute package."
When the Rabbitohs flexed their considerable muscle last Friday night the Chooks were found wanting, and while they'd put together a commendable first 26 weeks, in the end their inability to perform for the full hour and 20 minutes corresponded directly with their performances in the final and most crucial month of the competition.
Where They Excelled: Where didn't they, really? They scored more tries (118) than any other outfit, and with just 79 four-pointers being leaked by the Bondi Wall conceded less than all other comers bar the Rabbitohs (71 tries conceded). Despite a barren run between rounds 4 and 6 when they scored just 20 points in three straight losses, the Chooks prevailed as the most potent attacking side for the second year running, though their 25.4 points per game was slightly down on 2013's output of 26.3 a match. They also did rather well over an Origin period they could have been expected to struggle through when they were able to call on the services of dumped Blues halves Pearce and Maloney, winning four of their six games during the rep season and working their way into a handy position to make their charge toward pole position.
Where They Struggled: Turning it on when it mattered. For all their firepower and stonewall defence the premiers saved some of their worst football for the biggest games of the year. As resounding favourites against the Panthers they looked as though they were playing with a cake of soap, while a week later the Bondi Wall crumbled in embarrassing fashion against North Queensland, a field goal from Maloney the only difference between them surviving another week and bowing out in straight sets courtesy of conceding the biggest comeback in rugby league history. A week later they pushed their luck one game too many, and wilted in the face of a rampant Rabbitohs team that clicked into the famed extra gear the Chooks possessed in 2013, but just couldn't quite find a year later.
Missing in Action: By no stretch were the Chooks the hardest hit in NRL land, but their 2014 run was not the smooth sailing of the previous campaign. While Waerea-Hargreaves and Cordner were the only Roosters of note to miss more than five games in 2013, six of Robinson's highest profile charges spent more than that time on the sidelines through injury and suspension. Cordner, Jennings and Tupou were all floored around Origin period for five and six weeks each, while Williams and Guerra were both unavailable due to injuries, rep commitments and suspension at various stages. Friend's absence, due to a life-threatening chest injury suffered in Round 25, was also keenly felt by the premiers over the finals series, as he was forced to take breathers against the Cowboys and Rabbitohs at crucial points in those contests after making his miraculous recovery.
Turning Point: Arguably their worst performance of the year, and certainly the toughest week the club endured this year, was the catalyst for the Chooks' mid-season turn around. After Pearce and a certain lady in yellow had the media in a flap, the star halfback was issued a $20,000 fine and one-week suspension as the club came under intense scrutiny. Robinson's men responded with a rather inept showing that saw the Cowboys put 42 points on them in Round 10, and within days a few home truths were delivered their way. A booze ban was not enforced, but taken up voluntarily by the playing group and prohibition remained in effect for the majority of the year. By no coincidence the premiers also won 11 of their 14 remaining games.
Best Games: The Round 24 and 25 back-to-back wins over finals contenders the Warriors (46-12) and Melbourne (24-12) came via entirely different means to the same end of two competition points, and were equally impressive in their own rights. Across the ditch the premiers put on a show of spectacular freewheeling football in dazzling sunshine as they put eight tries past the locals, while on their own turf a week later the Bondi Wall withstood everything Melbourne's big three could throw at them in the wet with a defensive effort that just oozed confidence. Elsewhere the final round 22-18 triumph over the Rabbits was significant for both the minor premiership and local derby bragging rights it delivered, while the mid-season dismantling of Bulldogs (Round 11), Melbourne again in the Southern capital (Round 13), and Penrith (Round 19) all by the same 32-12 margin hinted that the old Chook magic was on its way back.
Worst Games: Aside from the previously mentioned two finals games against the Panthers and Cowboys, and the drubbing handed their way up in Townsville, the two upset losses to the Sharks (30-28) and Knights (16-12) in the first and last weekends of July would've stung like lemon juice squeezed into an open wound. The capitulation to the Sharks, who had in the previous seven days lost their coach and star playmaker, from a 24-0 lead prior to half-time was downright un-Rooster-like, and prompted another round of introspective group meetings at their Moore Park headquarters.
Hold Your Head High: Mitch Pearce played the best footy of his career over the last two months of the season, and has worked his way back into NSW coach Laurie Daley's good books as a result. To a lesser extent Maloney went with his halves partner, riding a handy run of form of his own as the premiers gained momentum, while Anthony Minichiello aged like a fine cab sav, making his last ever game one of his best in years as he copped a battering from the Bunnies big men but still bagged a double. Young guns Tupou and Guerra also rose to deserved Origin debuts and remain Kangaroos bolters after maintaining their impressive form over the back end of the year, while Moa up front produced a series of powerhouse efforts all year that had opposition defences on high alert for the Chooks No.10 built rather like a block of flats.
Conclusion: And so again we'll let Robbo wrap us up here. "I got questions a lot about 'it's a tough year' and all that... but it was such an amazing year footy-wise." Again the Roosters mentor, wise beyond just his two years in the top grade, provides the perspective here. Yes, the fact they didn't go back-to-back, when given such a golden opportunity to, will be deemed a failure down Bondi way. But otherwise they still performed admirably well, and while the departures of the irreplaceable Williams and Minichiello leave rather large holes next year, the resurgence of Pearce and the fact so many of their stars look to be on the cusp of their prime footballing years means the Chooks will be toward the top of the pile again in 2015.
Position: (after 26 rounds) 1st
Position (after Finals): 3rd
Home Record: 9-3
Away Record: 7-5
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Rounds 21-26)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 4-6)
Players Used: 25
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 103
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 63